The phone rang this morning. It was a producer from MSNBC who wanted to know if I could appear on air to discuss Trump’s tweets. I said, What tweets?
A few minutes later (and after I explained to the producer that I’m in Maine and off the media grid) I wrote an email to my editor at the New York Times, saying, If you want me to swing into action, let me know; I’ll write a piece and file before noon. For a moment I sat there in bed staring at the email, knowing that if I hit send it would be one kind of day, and if I didn’t, it would be another. Today — after a weekend of GLAAD board work and a few days of doing various tasks at home — was supposed to be a day of lying around doing nothing. I’d imagined taking the boat out, cutting the motor, and just floating for a while looking at the blue sky.
Then I hit SEND.
Editor came back immediately and said, Let’s do this. So I posted up a request for quotes on Facebook and Twitter from trans vets and active duty servicemen and women. Within minutes letters and comments were pouring in. I also reached out to two of our most distinguished vets — Amanda Simpson, former deputy assistant secretary of defense, and Monica Helms, who designed the first trans flag (after service as a submarine Machinist). Monica called me almost immediately. I interviewed her, then transcribed the interview, then read all the letters I’d received. It was now about 10:45.
I wrote the piece, using Monica Helm’s story as the center. I thought the story of her acceptance by her submarine crew was emblematic; and also thought that circling back to her work inventing the trans flag, now in the Smithsonian, was a good ending. In between I used the quotes of other vets, and consulted the work of SPARTA, the LGBT military org. By 11:45 I had a draft.
I checked my sources, did a light edit, sent the story in at noon. They said they’d run it by 2:30. As their edit came back, AMANDA SIMPSON CALLED ME FROM KAZAKHSTAN. As always, she spoke with clarity and passion — and gave me the greatest quote ever, which I then threaded back into the draft.
I got the final playback from the NYT at 2:15, with a few changes (including their new title, which is good, although not as good as mine, “THE TRANSGENDER BETSY ROSS,” which is how I described Monica Helms.
The piece went live around 3:00, and I left the house and took an hourlong walk through the woods. Strange to be in silence after all this folderol. It’s funny: I admit that writing against a hard deadline, in a whole “stop the presses” mentality is exciting–if you don’t thrill to this kind of pressure, I can’t explain it. As a writer it’s just killer. But all I felt when the piece went up was a sense of exhaustion, and sadness that it was necessary to write.
Later, I got a letter from a former New York Times columnist whom I revere, who just said, “Sometimes you realize, if you don’t write the piece, who will? And you have to get to work and start writing.” I don’t believe I’m the only person who can do this work–there are many, many great writers in this space now. But I’m glad i was able to find the story.
I’m very grateful to the vets who reached out to me today both the ones who volunteered to have their names quoted as well as the ones serving in silence, people who now fear for their privacy. I tried to do well by you. Please know this fight is not over, and that I really do believe we will come to live in a better world some day.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, the former co-chair of GLAAD, is Professor of English and the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College.